Death in Drohobych

A new biography of a Polish literary master

<em>Spotkanie</em> by Bruno Schulz, 1920 (Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature via Wikimedia Commons)
Spotkanie by Bruno Schulz, 1920 (Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature via Wikimedia Commons)

Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History by Benjamin Balint; W. W. Norton, 320 pp., $30 

I first heard of Bruno Schulz as a high school student in Ostróda in northern Poland, when the well-known literary critic, writer, and translator Artur Sandauer visited the literature club I belonged to. He spoke of writers I was familiar with and then, at the end, mentioned Schulz. Sandauer told us that Schulz had been born in Drohobych, now in Ukraine, and died there in 1942. Yet he failed to mention that both he and Schulz were Jewish—and with good reason. It was the spring of 1969, in the aftermath of a brutal anti-Semitic campaign, sponsored by the Communist Party, that ultimately led to the exodus from Poland of some 20,000 Jews. Sandauer, I learned later, had grown up in Sambor, a town close to Drohobych, and he and Schulz had been friends. Sandauer managed to flee from the ghetto and survived. Schulz, although in possession of forged Aryan papers from his Warsaw friends, lacked the resolve to use them and never made it out.

Schulz’s work met with disapproval after the war, shunned by Polish critics in thrall to socialist realism. After Stalin’s death, Sandauer helped revive interest in his friend by writing an introduction to Schulz’s Cinnamon Shops (1934) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937), published together in the first postwar Polish edition in 1957. But it was writer and translator Jerzy Ficowski who uncovered many of Schulz’s lost letters, articles, and reviews, as well as his drawings and graphics. Those materials formed the basis of his 1967 book, Regions of the Great Heresy, the first reconstruction of Schulz’s life. Published in an English edition in 2003, in a translation by Theodosia Robertson, Ficowski’s book stood for decades as the only available biography of Schulz. Now, with the release of Benjamin Balint’s Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History, English speakers will gain access to an important new account that sheds light on many previously unknown aspects of Schulz’s life and posthumous existence.

Schulz’s work has acquired a cult following and continues to inspire writers, visual artists, filmmakers, theater directors, composers, and musicians.

Balint begins his narrative with a visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem, where he examines fragments of murals painted by Schulz. German documentary filmmakers Christian and Benjamin Geissler discovered the murals in February 2001, in a house in Drohobych that once belonged to SS officer Felix Landau, a ruthless killer who was in charge of Jewish labor. Landau also fancied himself an arts patron. After seeing Schulz’s drawings, he decided to grant him the status of “necessary Jew.” As Landau’s “slave,” Schulz painted murals in several SS buildings and was ordered to decorate with frescoes the walls of the children’s room in his “protector’s” villa. The murals depicted scenes from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Landau had given Schulz a special armband that was supposed to exempt him from Nazi roundups and keep him safe. It didn’t: Schulz was gunned down, along with about 200 other Jews, during an SS killing spree on November 19, 1942. Landau later bragged about the number of Jews he shot on that “Black Thursday.” Of the many differing explanations for Schulz’s murder, Balint presents five, starting with the best-known and most likely scenario: that Schulz was killed in reprisal for Landau’s shooting of a Jewish dentist who happened to be the slave of a rival Nazi officer.

After the war, Landau’s villa was divided into apartments. Schulz’s murals lay hidden under layers of paint in one resident’s pantry until the Geisslers found them. Balint carefully recounts the story of the murals’ discovery, their stealthy removal a few months later by the agents of Yad Vashem, and the international uproar that followed. Debate raged over whether the Israeli operation was a rescue or a theft. Yad Vashem asserted its “moral right” to Schulz’s work. The Polish government, together with the country’s literary community, emphasized that Schulz spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew, wrote in Polish, and thought of himself as part of the Polish literary tradition. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials insisted that the artwork belonged to the town of Drohobych. Balint’s evenhanded account of the dispute—which includes the bribery of local Ukrainian functionaries and the suspected involvement of upper echelons of Israeli officials in what Balint calls “a Holocaust heist”—reads like investigative journalism.

The discovery of the murals and their seizure made international headlines. For many people, it was the first time they’d heard the name Bruno Schulz, but the extent to which they were prompted to reach for a volume of his stories is anyone’s guess. Fame owing to a politically motivated controversy wasn’t the kind Schulz ever would have sought or desired. During his short life, he made several attempts at winning broader recognition for his work, but none panned out. One of his stories, “Die Heimkehr” (“Homecoming”), he wrote in German and sent to Thomas Mann, hoping it would help him find non-Polish readers. It didn’t. Schulz likewise traveled to Paris in 1938, taking with him a hundred of his drawings. Encouraged by his many friends, he hoped to make contacts in artistic circles and arrange an exhibition of his work. Having failed, he returned to Drohobych and wrote to a friend that the trip had helped “rid [himself] of certain delusions concerning an international career.”

Schulz’s haunting stories brought him international recognition only later, after they were translated into numerous languages. The first English translation of The Street of Crocodiles, by Celina Wieniewska, came out in London in 1963, but only in 1977—when, at the behest of guest editor Philip Roth, Penguin published that translation—did Schulz’s work reach wider readership and receive the critical attention it deserved. Many American writers, among them John Updike and Cynthia Ozick, wrote rave reviews of Schulz’s work. Over time, Schulz has acquired a cult following and continues to inspire not just other writers and visual artists but also filmmakers, theater directors, composers, and musicians. In 2019, his Collected Stories appeared in a new translation by Madeleine G. Levine.

 Schulz’s afterlife has indeed been long, and interest in the writer continues to grow. The search for his lost art and literary works is still unearthing new materials. In 2019, the Ukrainian researcher Lesya Khomych found a story titled “Undula,” which Schulz published in 1922 under the pseudonym of Marceli Weron, in an oil industry journal. The discovery corrects the misconception that Schulz’s first publication dates to 1934 and that his art preceded his literary output. It also strengthens the belief of those who haven’t given up hope that the lost manuscript of Schulz’s novel Messiah will one day be found. Schulz began working on it in 1934 and, before moving to the Drohobych ghetto, handed it off for safekeeping.

Bruno Schulz is a welcome addition to our fund of information about a remarkable European master. In it, Balint invites the reader to follow him through “a portal into the haunted life of this virtuoso of language and image.” Those who enter will leave with a better understanding of Schulz’s life and his literary and artistic legacy.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough is an essayist and a literary translator. Her collection of essays, Objects of Affection, was published in 2018.


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